Brutal and unflinching at times, the subject matter of The Birth of a Nation is steeped in sincerity. Dating back to pre-Civil War, Nate Parker’s directorial debut does not shy away from a time where those who were oppressed by racial injustice had no hope. You’ve seen movies centered around slavery before. You’ve seen the muted colors that paint a dark, grim picture of this historical time period. And while it might feel familiar, The Birth of a Nation’s revolutionary story about one man’s faith turned upside down to the point that vengeance is his only answer to injustice results in a powerful message that is not just vital, but also resonates with how we move forward in the present.
Nat Turner is an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner. With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nate should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner’s quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County.
The Birth of Nation is not without its flaws. Narratively speaking, the first act, which shows the early life of Nat Turner, is roughly put together. Early on, we see the operation of a plantation and those who try to escape, Nat learning to read using the Bible, and the foreshadowing of things to come. While some of the early scenes work, some either miss the mark or just don’t necessarily fit. As a first-time director, it’s not surprising to see such mishaps occur. But still, once we see Nat Turner as a full-grown adult, director/star Nate Parker overshadows the first act’s shortcomings with a heart-rending journey that becomes more compelling as the story progresses.
When Nat Turner isn’t picking cotton in the fields, we see him as a preacher on the plantation. Quoting scripture in a place of worship, he fuels his short messages with simplicity and tranquillity. While it could be said that the violence in The Birth of a Nation is unbearable to watch at times, so are the scenes in which Nat Turner preaches at other plantations for the profit of his plantation owner. At these plantations, Nat attempts to convince slaves through nonexistent Bible scriptures that they must serve their owners in order to gain access to heaven, which also keeps the slaves from stirring up any trouble with their owners. One of the movie’s best moments comes from a sermon Nat delivers after witnessing the gruesome punishment of a slave. After seeing the horror unfold before his eyes, Nat stands in front of a group of slaves with tears running down his cheeks and preaches from the heart, rather than using false Bible verses, and delivers a sermon told with potency and grace.
The Birth of a Nation’s reliance on religious undertones is stirring, as we watch Nat Turner’s faith break down bit by bit only to be reborn once the movie reaches its climax. As Nat’s dynamic character begins to hand out justice as if he were delivering “the wrath of God,” Nat’s violence and ferocity begin to speak louder than his sermons. When the blood begins to be flow and the uprising commences, so does the unease for the inevitable that soon follows. The last 10 minutes of The Birth of a Nation will hit you the most, as the immensely sorrowful movie score kicks in and you’re left with the realisation of where things stood once Nat Turner’s story concludes.
Story aside, The Birth of a Nation is terrific in a couple of other areas, as well. Three performances stand out, with Nate Parker (The Great Debaters) leading the way as Nat Turner. Giving a career-best performance, Parker’s passion as Nat can be felt throughout the course of the movie. Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away with Murder) is elegant as Cherry, Nat Turner’s wife. And Armie Hammer (The Social Network) is softly wicked and nonchalant (for the most part) as Nat’s plantation owner, Samuel Turner. To go along with these performances, The Birth of a Nation features some beautiful imagery, thanks to cinematographer Elliot Davis. When the movie doesn’t feature dialogue from the characters or close-ups of the actors’ faces, the camera pans back to let the movie breathe and shows us some of the beautiful landscape surrounding us; some of it is quite striking considering the movie’s relatively small of a budget.
Nate Parker’s biographical drama of Nat Turner mostly works and sticks with you long after the credits end. We’ve read in school textbooks and have seen in previous movies the horrors of this unfortunate time in American history. But still, The Birth of a Nation is a passionately told movie about the struggle for justice and equality. And more importantly, the movie’s message is a reminder of what audiences should embrace and learn in an effort to understand how this segment from our nation’s history still molds us today.